One of the great challenges when working with students is convincing them that it’s OK to narrow their research topics. Students commonly report that beginning a research paper (understanding the scope of the assignment, picking a topic, and finding a question to answer) is usually the most challenging part. Alison Head’s 2007 article in First Monday about the results of focus groups and surveys with college students at one college noted that “[t]rying to figure out what constituted a professor’s expectations for an assignment caused…the most frustration.”
From what I’ve seen, students flounder around in a sea of broad topics at the outset of the research process for a variety of reasons:
- Lack of domain expertise. They usually don’t know enough about the topic yet to know what sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, sub-sub-sub topics, etc. exist. Reading/skimming around, presearching, talking to someone else (teacher, librarian, friend, etc.) are all strategies that can help at this early stage if the student has set aside enough time for it.
- Fear of picking a topic that’s too narrow. Students often worry that the professor won’t approve of a topic that . Students believe they need to impress their professor with grand topics, that they need to demonstrate that they have wrestled with mighty issues. Students also fear that they won’t find enough sources on topics that are too granular.
- Limited ideas about how to use sources. Students commonly have very basic notions about how to use sources creatively and strategically. They tend to limit their searches to those sources that that they believe will directly discuss their topic and back up their assertions; they rarely think about finding sources that will complicate their assertions. (For more on helping students understand how to think more broadly about source use, see my post about using Joseph Bizup’s BEAM model; also take a look at Mark Gaipa’s article in Pedagogy, “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing”).
Because students can’t see how they can crossbreed sources across disciplines and topics, they tend to think their research topics should be broad, as that’ll make it easier to find sources. We must convince them that a narrow topic can be connected in lots of interesting ways to larger topics and disciplines, that sources from left field can be deployed in defensible ways in their papers (see Joseph Bizup and the BEAM model). I recently stumbled across these lines by William Blake in “Auguries of Innocence” that have inspired me to work harder at communicating this essential cognitive skill we want to teach, the move from micro to macro:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
I think I may have a new poetic pitch to deliver to the students I work with. Here’s hoping it helps.
Does this scenario from the reference desk sound familiar? A student asks for help finding something that requires you to set up a complicated search with lots of limiters, nested terms, truncation, etc. Or maybe the search you want to demo is in one of the funkier databases where it takes a few minutes just to get the query set up (Factiva) or where it takes a lot longer (Datastream). Or worse, you know that the seemingly simple request for information is going to require them to go to two or more different databases (this one for the articles, that one for the datasets, and another for that specialized report).
As you try your best to explain to the student what you are doing, you maybe urge them to take some notes. Maybe you print out a screenshot and mark it up to make sure the student doesn’t forget to tick off that little checkbox in the lower right corner that is absolutely essential to the query working at all. The student, eyes glazed over, maybe a little fearful looking, thanks you and walks over out the door hoping they’ll remember everything they heard by the time they get to a computer (across the library, in a lab, or worse, at home, hours later).
Wouldn’t it be great if all that demonstration you’re doing on the staff computer at the desk could be automatically recorded, uploaded to the library’s YouTube account with a private URL (maybe even one that could be password protected by you and the student)? And then, to help the student get to that URL, the screen on your computer would offer up a shortened URL and an affiliated QR code. You could print out the page with the URL for the student, or he/she could capture the URL with a QR code app on his/her smartphone. Maybe the screen would also have options that would let the user type in a mobile phone number or an email address that they’d want to the URL sent to. Or if I can really go off into fantasy land, the student could send the video to their personal research pad that the university set up for him/her on the first day of school (see my previous post for details on this).
While I’ve long done annotated screenshots on the fly for students I’ve helped at the desk (and also in email and chat reference interactions), it would great if we could provide richer personalized help documentation. Pieces of this vision are doable now: it’s trivial to set up screencapture software or use web-based services to record your demo. It’s not super hard to upload video to sites like YouTube or Vimeo. You can use things like bit.ly to generate shortened URLs and a related QR code. But what I’d like to see is a system that can automate some of these processes: click the “stop” button on your screencapture software and the system does all the rest of the steps for you quickly, minimizing the time you and the student have to wait for it to do its thing. This is the future I want.
Students today have lots of great options for keeping track of sources they find:
- citation management software and web services (Zotero, Mendeley, EndNote, RefWorks)
- bookmarking services (Diigo, Delicious, Pinboard)
- note-taking software and services (Evernote, OneNote, Springpad)
As wonderful as these tools are, there are a couple of notable barriers to their wider adoption:
- a herculean effort is required to ensure that each year’s newest batch of first-year students, transfer students, and grad students are made aware of the existence of these tools
- once made aware of the tools and convinced of their utility, students still have to take the extra step to register for accounts and/or download and install software
What if colleges were to set up a combination note-taking, bookmarking, citation management web service for every incoming student? The tool could be all set up and ready to go, accessible on the web to the student by means of the same authentication/login system they use to get to campus email, course management systems, remote access to library databases, etc. The “research pad” that I have been brainstorming off and on for the past few years would connect to lots of resources and tools automatically and would allow the easy manual import of new items (articles found in a database, for example) via a number of means (bookmarklets, import via a custom email address, RSS feeds from your Zotero account, etc.)
Here are the components such a tool could have:
- Place to see all the items you have currently checked out from the library (a click through on any item would take you to the “my account” feature commonly found in most library catalogs). Through an opt-in system, a user could decide to retain a list of items they have checked out in the past too (the click through on any item would go the item record in the catalog). This archive of what you have borrowed touches on a major third rail in library privacy issues, but perhaps if it was opt in and we did a really good job of informing our users of why they might not want to do this, it could fly in some libraries.
- Place to see all the articles you’d found in any database the library has. Most databases have an “email this citation/full text” function of some sort; patrons could type in their unique research pad email address and have the database send the article straight to the student’s research pad. The research pad could also be set to sync with Zotero, RefWorks, or other citation management systems.
- Section to save your bookmarks of web sites found on the open web. Given the recent rise of tools like Tumblr and Pinterest, and the longer successes of bookmarking services like Delicious and Diigo, a bookmarklet might be familiar enough to many students that it would be installed and used. At the very least, the Research Pad would let you import your bookmarks from your browser or from other bookmarking services.
- A portion of the page would show the student help in various forms from the library: screencasts and screenshots custom made by the librarian at some reference service point (see my next post for details on this) and automated recommendations of relevant databases (or maybe article content from a service like Ex Libris’ bX Recommender or book content from LibraryThing or GoodReads).
Here is a mock up of the research pad that I put together today:
I’m not a web designer of any sort, but I would expect that you’d want to have the sections made collapsible or tabbed. I also realize that much of the functionality I’ve dreamed up here is not technically or practically possible (yet). But I do think we in the library world need to be dreaming our own dreams of what we’d like to have developed and not rely on the limited and siloed offerings we current get from various vendors. Many databases have “my account” features that let you keep track of content you’ve found just in that one platform; I’d like to see a tool that would be platform agnostic, that would let students pull in sources from all sorts of places and that would be connected via the library’s authentication systems in a seamless and invisible way (students shouldn’t have to think about how to set up remote access options in citation management software or how to log into some database’s “my account” feature).
What important features and functions did I miss? What elements of my research pad are unnecessary? Has anyone ever built a tool like this that pulls in such a wide range of services and resources? I’d love to hear back in the comments.
It’s quite simple, really. If you want folks to use your digital reference service, you have to make it easy for them to find it. In fact, they shouldn’t even have to go hunting for it; it should be right there in front of them as much as possible. A year and a half ago, I was excited when a change in the EBSCOhost platform allowed libraries to insert chat widgets into all search results pages that got generated (see Paul Pival’s post with step-by-step instructions about how to set it up). Some libraries had already managed to find a way to get chat widgets placed in their library catalogs, but getting a database company to free up space like this seemed truly revolutionary. In the years since, no other vendor that I know of allows this kind of customization. Yes, many platforms give us ways that we can put custom links in and graphics. What we really need, though, from the likes of LexisNexis, ProQuest, etc. is just a little bit of space for our widgets, just a sliver.
I should note that this plea for space was sparked by an announcement from the California Digital Library that the WorldCat Local instance for the entire University of California library system would have a chat widget in it. The announcement isn’t quite accurate, as the chat widget itself is not embedded in the interface; instead, there’s just a graphic (albeit, a nice one) that says “Chat with a librarian” and that when clicked, opens a pop up window with their chat widget. At that graphic is only on the search results page (it should probably also be on the search page too). I think it would have been much cooler if the widget was actually embedded in the page, as our chat widgets in EBSCOhost can be.
This month, I ended more than ten years of service in the Information Services Division at the Newman Library at Baruch College and started a new position as a user experience librarian in the Collection Management Division. While I will continue to provide reference services and teach workshops and credit courses, I’ll be working on all sorts of projects in Collection Management that focus on improving access to and integration of the library’s online and on-site resources. The work will consistently be driven by user needs, which means that I’ll be involved in a lot of usability tests, focus groups, surveys, and more, as part of an effort to design a better experience for our students and faculty. So far, I’ve been hip deep in our link resolver (SFX), our ejournals lookup system (Serials Solutions 360 Core) our federated search tool (Serials Solutions 360 Search), and admin options for various databases. My supervisor and amazing colleague, Mike Waldman, and I hope to release a mobile-friendly website that links to mobile-friendly databases, a LibX toolbar, and a project involving QR codes in the stacks linking users to electronic resources and LibGuides.
I expect I’ll still be posting items here at Digital Reference, but will also be active over at my other blog, Beating the Bounds, which is where I go when I want to talk about scholarly communication, open access, fair use, copyright, information literacy, databases, social media, and user experience.
(cross posted at Beating the Bounds)
This week, I completed work on a guide to reference services that was commissioned by the Metropolitan Library Council of New York. Originally, I was asked to create a guide to digital reference, but lately I’ve been feeling less inclined to carve out a unique space for “digital reference” in the larger sphere of reference services. More and more, I think of any question answering libraries do as reference and try not to get too hung on distinctions that mean less and less and online reference services have become commonplace and the cross-referrals between online and physical service points are de rigeur.Libraries have mostly moved past the era of creating separate, cutesy brand names for the IM or chat reference services and now just present a raft of service options under the rubric of “Ask Us” or “Ask a Librarian.”
This guide is meant to appeal to libraries of all types, although some might see a bias toward the needs of academic libraries. If you have any suggestions about links or changes in terminology that would broaden the appeal the guide, I’d love hear about them.
Over on my other blog, Beating the Bounds, I wrote a series of posts for the Library Day in the Life project that some of my readers here might find interesting.
I really wish I was going to ALA Midwinter this week just so I could participate in the discussion hosted by OCLC on what a national virtual reference service might look like. Here is the description of the event on the registration page for it:
Sunday, January 9
10:30 am – 12:00 pm, San Diego Convention Center, Room 24 A
Building a National Reference Service
Libraries provide virtual reference services locally, with local library staff, and—in some cases—regionally or statewide. While many countries have national reference services, the US does not. Join us for a discussion of what a national ‘ask a librarian’ service could look like, and how it could be accomplished.
I have been aware of some of the discussions over the past few years, but they only seem to take place at ALA events. Is anyone else writing or talking about this someplace else?
To followup on yesterday’s post in which I noted that I was going to look for more information on the patron notification system at Darien Library, I’ll note here that Diana K. Wakimoto’s post at the Waki Librarian provides a nice summary of John Blyberg’s presentation about the project at Internet Librarian last month. If your library was thinking of moving away from a constantly staffed reference desk or wanted to find a way for patrons in far flung parts of the library to be able to request assistance, the Darien Library’s patron notification system seems like a well thought out solution.
This post is just a reminder to myself that I need to investigate further this interesting “patron notification system” that the Darien Library (CT) is putting together. I think that the Growl software is involved in some way. I’m guessing that it allows a patron to request help from any available librarian. I first heard about this last year from this annotation on an image on John Blyberg’s Flickr account:
Experimenting with using growl as a paging notification system for roving librarians. The patron can push a button on a touch-screen display on the service desk and a “growl” will be blasted out to all available librarians. Uses growl (http://growl.info/) and growl for windows (http://www.growlforwindows.com/gfw/)
More recent images on Blyberg’s Flickr account offer a better glimpse at what they’ve been cooking up in Darien.
I was honored to be asked back this week to the Adventures in Library Instruction podcast along with other guests from previous episodes. I learned about a number of interesting projects and ideas from the other guests. Chad Mairn makes use of PollEverywhere in his classes and workshops and finds it valuable for getting instant feedback from his students. He’s also got an interesting “Database Troubleshooting Guide” that helps walk patrons through issues they may be having when accessing library databases. Peter Larsen spoke about using Google Docs for his library’s credit course.
Chad and Peter had to leave after a half hour of recording, which left me to ramble on at the halfway mark with the show hosts about why I find Joseph Bizup’s model for teaching source types to students so powerful, a topic I recently blogged about here.
Keri Bertino and Heather Sample at the Writing Center at Baruch College, with whom I have been working on a series of workshops for students working on undergraduate honors theses, have completely revolutionized the way that I think about sources. This summer, my colleagues recommended to me an article from 2008 by Joseph Bizup from Rhetoric Review (volume 27, number 1) titled “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing” (behind a paywall…sorry). Arguing convincingly that the traditional model of sources that we teach to students–primary, secondary, tertiary–is limiting and confusing, Bizup goes on to suggest that we instead teach students to think about the different way that we use sources in writing.
Specifically, he recommends divvying up source types into four categories:
- Background: sources in which you want to assert that something is a fact and which can contextualize your claims
- Exhibits: sources that you offer an analysis or interpretation of
- Arguments: sources that are part of the discourse about your topic
- Method: sources that you use to delineate the method of analysis you will use or the terminology you will employ
Put more succinctly, Bizup wants us to teach students that “[w]riters rely on background sources, interpret of analyze exhibits, engage arguments, and follow methods” (76). As a mnemonic aid, the system is referred to as the BEAM model. Not only is this model useful in getting students to think about how they will use their sources in their paper and whether they have the right number from each category, but is also useful in teaching students how to analyze a source critically. In his classes, Bizup asks his students to read a source and, following the BEAM modelm, to indicate to what use each source is put.
As a librarian, I can recognize immediately how this model will help me when I do workshops and teach my own 3-credit course in research. But I can also see how it might help me in reference interactions where I am hoping to widen the student’s sense of what might work as a source in their research projects. All too often, students assume that sources are to be used solely as support for the claims they are making and, relatedly, that those sources must be precisely on their narrow topic (e.g., “I need to find a source that talks about the role of mothers in this poem by Dickinson and this play by Brecht”). With this model in mind, I can work with students to look at what sources they have found and whether they have found enough from each category to make the claim they want to. In particular, I think I will be able to employ Bizup’s maxim about getting started with a research project, where he states that “[i]f you start with an exhibit, look for argument sources to engage; if you start with argument sources, look for exhibits to interpret” (82).
I would recommend that any librarian who does reference work or who teaches in classrooms take a look at this article.
Today is the first day of the fall semester here at Baruch College. From 9-10 this morning, I was scheduled to work as a greeter by the turnstiles at the entrance to the library. As students and faculty filed in, I greeted each one with, “Good morning! Welcome to the library.” I got lots of returned greetings, many smiles and nods of recognition, and nearly three dozen reference questions. I’m eager to hear from my colleagues who are doing the same thing throughout the day to see if they had the same good experience that I did.
When first asked to participate in this little project, I imagined it would mostly be an exercise in relationship building. I never imagined that I’d be helping the reference desk out by fielding so many questions.
Yesterday, I got a chance to meet informally with the students who will be in my 3-credit course I’m teaching here in the library at Baruch College (“Information Research for the Social Sciences and the Humanities”). When I was asking the students to tell me about kinds of research they have done that takes place outside of the classroom, a couple of the students mentioned using Yahoo! Answers to get advice about what cell phone or laptop to buy. Although they also mentioned using things like reviews on CNET, they preferred the personal commentary from question answerers to the more polished articles on tech and gadget sites.
When my class starts next Monday, I hope to probe more deeply into this issue and find out more about how they assess the credibility of those providing answers in Q&A sites. Not only will it be interesting to me as a reference librarian but also as an instructor trying to teach a semester-long course on how to find, evaluate, and use information to answer questions.
For the past day, I’ve been trying out Quora, a social Q&A service, to see what it’s like to answer questions, pose questions, and vote on other people’s answers. There are a few other librarians already there on the service. I hope to write a longer post soon on social Q&A services and how they might work for library reference services. In the meanwhile, here are some links to the world of Q&A services:
- My profile page on Quora (you can see what questions I’ve posed and what ones I’ve answered)
- Ask MetaFilter
- Yahoo! Answers
- Slam the Boards!
- Radford, Marie L. “‘‘Predatory Reference’ an Interview with Bill Pardue about ‘Slam the Boards.’ Second Slam Coming Up on October 10, 2007!” Library Garden, 7 October 2007. Web.
In the early 2000s, many of us who were interested in chat reference were flocking to software products that allowed us to synchronize our browser with our users so we could demonstrate how to set up a search in a database or have the user show us what they were doing. It seemed like a great way to advance instructional goals in chat reference interactions. Sadly, the tools that we used for co-browsing (the term we used to describe the process of synchronizing browsers) stopped being useful as more people started using browsers other than Internet Explorer and operating systems other than Microsoft Windows (both of which were required on the user’s end and the librarian’s end for the technology to work). Also, the co-browsing software was getting hamstrung by the increasingly strong security defenses that users were installing on their computers (especially firewall software).
I still use co-browsing from time to time on the QuestionPoint software that my library uses for its chat service, but I only do so if I’m on freely available pages on the open web (licensed content hidden behind our EZ Proxy authentication system almost never works in c0-browsing for us). Lately, I’ve been wondering if there might be alternatives to the co-browsing software. Today, I decided to try a service called Yuuguu; the capabilities of the service vary according to the pricing. If you use the free service, you can:
- do basic audioconferencing
- chat one-on-one
- get 100 minutes of web conferencing
- get 100 minutes of desktop sharing
To get started, you have to download the software and register for an account. If you want to do desktop sharing with someone, you have to send them the URL for this special Yuuguu page: http://www.yuuguu.com/share
After your user is there, they have to enter the unique PIN you’ve been assigned. Once the user does this, you and the user have a chat window where you can exchange messages. As the operator/librarian who has downloaded the Yuuguu application, you have the ability to start the desktop sharing service. Once you click the “web share” button on your Yuuguu application (it sits in its own window, not in your browser), your user will see whatever is on your screen, If you are in PowerPoint, that’s what your user will see. If you switch over to your browser, your user will see that. The user can also take control somewhat and control your computer to a limited extent (maybe just clicking things in your browser window). I created a short video that shows the user’s interface (but not mine, the librarian/operator interface). I hope this explains a bit better what things look like for the user.
I can’t honestly envision being in a chat session in QuestionPoint and then saying to the patron, “Hey, lets start a second chat over in this service, Yuuguu, and then I can show you how to set that search.” That just seems to clunky. But I did want to share my thoughts about how this one app handles desktop sharing, as it might be useful in other instructional settings (maybe a scheduled research consultation with a user who isn’t in your office).
PS: A big thanks to Laura Crossett for agreeing to try this software out with me earlier today.
Last Friday, I was one of four presenters at a day-long preconference workshop sponsored by RUSA at ALA Annual. When I got the invitation, I was more than a bit nervous to be sharing the podium with others whose writings I’d not only been reading but urging others to read. The workshop was titled, “Reference Evolution: Envisioning the Future, Remembering the Past.”
We had nearly 60 attendees in a conference hotel ballroom that alternated between freezing and steamy all day (typical story for hotel meeting rooms). The workshop organizers (led by Sam Stormont and Ryan Shepard) and the speakers made a website in Google Sites for attendees to refer back to after the event was over and to share with their colleagues. Three of the four presenters’ slide presentations are available on the site (the fourth should be there soon).
First up was Joe Janes, who gave a great keynote presentation on what’s changed in reference and what’s stayed, often for not good reasons, the same as ever. I was particularly struck by a lovely black and white photo Janes shared of a reference desk from the early 1900s. He suggested that if you asked reference librarians if they’d like to work there, most would likely say yes. But, he asked us, what would surgeons say if you showed them a similarly old photo of an operating theater and asked if they’d like to work there.
Amy VanScoy spoke next about why librarians should be more reflective about their personal philosophy of reference. She also argued effectively for the need to act consciously on that philosophy while working reference and to share and discuss our reference philosophies.
I spoke next about the tools we use in reference. I mentioned in passing the tools that we set up so our patrons can send us questions (email, chat, IM, phone numbers for calls and text messages, etc.) and focused my talk more on the tools we use to respond to those questions and to enrich the interactions (screenshots, screencasts, page pushing, tutorials, subject guides, knowledgebases, FAQs, etc.) I don’t think I did as good a job as I had intended in making the case for the way that our communication tools and our interaction helper tools are increasingly becoming interconnected and integrated. The links for the tools are all on my speaker page on the workshop website. You view the slides on Slideshare (each slide has notes underneath it, which you can view in Slideshare or if you download the PowerPoint file).
The final speaker was Kathleen Kern, who talked about the need for reference to “refine the focus” by accepting the disintermediation that’s taken place as users have gotten used to searching on their own. She also suggested that we rethink how we can fit more into the “flow” of our users lives.
After lunch we had two separate breakout sessions. For the first session, attendees chose among three different discussion groups they could join: making reference data work harder; we lost ready ref, now what?; and research consultations/one-on-one appointments. Notes from those groups will be shared on the breakout sessions page the workshop site soon.
The second breakout session was a big hit. Students from Joe Janes’ reference class at the University of Washington iSchool had come up with the idea when they were prompted to design an assignment for next semester’s reference class. In this breakout session, attendees broke up into small groups (2-4 people) and tried to come up with a list of three websites that would be useful for helping the greatest number of people on the widest range of topics. The kicker of this assignment: you had to assume that Google and all search engines were shut down, as was Wikipedia. I won’t spoil the surprise of the winning answer, as Joe Janes will be writing about it in a forthcoming column that he does regularly for American Libraries.
We had a great mix of attendees at the workshop: not only did we have the expected crowds from public and academic libraries but also a fair number from special libraries. One of the attendees, Lucy M. Lockley, wrote up a nice post where she discusses the workshop.
I wish I could have stayed longer at ALA so I could have attended a long list of RUSA events that looked interesting. Maybe next year…
A recent article in Reference & User Services Quarterly caught my eye today:
Finnell, Josh and Walt Fontane. “Reference Question Data Mining: A Systematic Approach to Library Outreach.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 49.3 (2010): 278-286. Web.
The authors describe a process developed at the library at McNeese State University in which reference statistics recorded at the desk included not just question type but also the subject of the question and the course (if any) connected to the question. Questions were later mapped to LC classification numbers, which then helped library staff to make collection development decisions. The data also led the librarians to refine their instructional offerings and to make new outreach efforts to specific departments.
I’ve started blogging again more often at Stephen Francoeur’s Stuff (a rather uninventive blog name, right?) Although it would be hugely convenient to me to post on all manner of library and info science related things here at Digital Reference, I’ve decided to keep a strict focus on this blog to reference services only. Everything else that catches my fancy, though, goes up on Stephen Francoeur’s Stuff. I hope you’ll drop by.
Jeff Pomerantz has launched an interesting conversation with his post, “Facebook Social Q&A Service Is the Death of Library Reference.” He argues that with Facebook now getting into the growing business of social Q&A services (such as ChaCha, Aardvark, etc.), libraries need to think seriously about whether reference is a core library service or perhaps a niche service. There are already a lot of comments on the post (including mine) and more on FriendFeed: